From the Fresh Air Archives: Dignity in Sixty Seconds

Editor’s Note: In 2015, Fresh Air with Terry Gross received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to create a digital archive of over 8,000 episodes from the program’s history. When the project is complete, broadcasts from 1976 through 2015 will be publicly available via WorldCat.

The Fresh Air archive team is creating metadata for each interview and review featured on the show. They blog about noteworthy content they discover along the way.

By Metadata Specialists Niki Lagrone and Alex Vallejo

In 1987, Fresh Air made its national debut on NPR as a daily program, after over a decade as a local program in Philadelphia. The show adopted a new, standardized format at that time. Each episode included two interviews by Terry Gross, and two shorter segments devoted to reviews, commentary or in-studio performances. These latter features allowed for a wide variety of unique, often quirky content, about contemporary issues.

Some contributors shared their insights into recent technological advances. Linguist Geoff Nunberg, who was already a regular on Fresh Air, considered the grammatical — and existential — challenges posed by the answering machine. In a piece broadcast on November 25, 1987, he suggested recording a greeting in the future perfect tense: “Hi. I will surely be sorry not to have been in when you will have called, but you will have been able to leave a message once you have heard the beep. You will have had thirty seconds.” Nunberg later conceded that not everyone shared his enthusiasm for precise language.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg


Like today, Fresh Air explores social and political issues through the lens of entertainment and popular culture. In a June 9th, 1987 interview, African American actor Robert Townsend spoke about the the racial stereotypes which existed in Hollywood, and how TV and film directors wanted him to “be blacker” in his speech. By contrast, television commercials gave Townsend the opportunity to portray successful African American men in a variety of different professions. “In TV commercials,” he said, “at least I had dignity in sixty seconds.”

Actor Robert Townsend



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